Archive | June, 2013

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

30 Jun

the blade itself

 

***SPOILERS AHEAD–YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED***

Ok now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’m going to give you a big earful about a great little Fantasy series by Joe Abercrombie–the first three books are The First Law trilogy, and then he has three further standalone books set in the same universe.   The universe is vaguely medievalish, but that’s where the similarity between traditional fantasy and Abercrombie’s novels end.

Generally fantasy can be split between two broad categories–there’s the traditional sword and sorcery epic that’s usually strongly pulling from Tolkien, and the more fashionable Machiavellian gritty fantasy written by the likes of George R.R. Martin.  These books don’t comfortably fit into either trope, so if you want something that fits into either one comfortably you’re going to be disappointed.  Most criticisms of The First Law series I’ve noticed were because of wanting the books to be something they’re not.

Ok, so let’s start with the traditional fantasy side.   In those multi-volume epics what you’ve generally got is very clear lines between good and evil where the good is on a quest to save the world (or at least the world as they knew it) from destruction.   The Blade Itself does not draw its lines so neatly between sides in fact I’d go so far as to say he mostly doesn’t draw lines at all–all the characters are mostly amoral, and even those who have some sense of honor end up being very close to being hypocrites.   Also, the world that Abercrombie presents is relatively small, you’ll find no maps with multiple countries here–he’s got only four areas:  The Union (aka Europe in the Middle Ages), The Gurkish Empire (ancient Middle East), the North (warrior era Scandinavia), and the Old Empire which is just shy of total anarchy.   Even with this sized world, we spend time in The Blade Itself in very little of it, other than a little wandering in the North and one side-plot in the Gurkish Empire the entire story takes place in the Union’s capital city of Adua.

“Oh well then!” You might say, “Dark characters plotting?  This sounds like a Martin style book!”  Hold up there, sport.  Martin’s books (and the books like them) are largely concerned with powerful families plotting for power.   There’s a lot of scheming, some battles, but it’s more like a game of chess where you’ve got the people on top determining the best moves to get what they want.  While there are some similarities, particularly in the character development range, the big difference is that the scheming is not to get some great aim, the characters are (mostly) plotting to meet their own personal aims and nothing more.  We’re in a world where the people in power are largely inept, and very few people have any clue about what’s going on.  What’s more, the characters, are all from positions of low to middling influence.  Even if they wanted to gain power, none of them are really in a position to do it (other than–perhaps–Bayaz.)

What we have instead is a picaresque book, along the likes of CandideDon Quixote, or Tom Jones.  What we have is a loose bundle of ne’er-do-wells wandering about a very corrupt world moving from one circumstance to the next.  The action is episodic, full of black humor, and incredibly violent. My favorite thing about this book is that Abercrombie has a knack for making complex characters that react differently when different circumstances are presented to them. 

So who we follow are Glokta, a crippled ex-soldier now working as an inquisitor.  Rather than his torture experiences making him more empathetic, it simply makes him do his job more efficiently.   Logan Ninefingers, AKA the bloody-nine,  is a barbarian who is weary of killing and war, but remains stuck in it.  Jezel dan Luthar is a spoiled nobleman who thinks everyone is beneath him.  Collem West is a low-born Union officer with a nasty temper.   Bayaz, is a scheming enchanter who claims to be connected to the god-like founders.   Finally we have Ferro Maljinn, a Gurkish ex-slave bent on revenging herself on the empire, who hates everybody.

The world presented is brutal and cruel, we constantly see sights where the powerful abuse the less-powerful with shocking consistently.  Battles nearly always end with significant losses on both sides and very little gained.  Life is cheap, Abercrombie makes no bones about killing significant characters, often the very ones who manage to have something of a noble cause about them.  Also, there’s a general sense of the powerful not listening to advice from their underlings especially when that advice should be heeded.

Magic here is not a super-power, but rather a mysterious force that is very sinister.  Other than Bayaz, anybody who uses magic gets corrupted and turns outright evil.   Even Bayaz has very shadowy motivations, and when he takes the seed (which we know nothing about other than it’s incredibly powerful) I’m left wondering whether taking anything powerful out and placing it into that world is a good idea at all, considering there’s not one individual who can responsibly use the little power they have.

Sounds like a downer, right?  Well, the one thing that saves this book from total bleakness is the humor–Glokta in particular has many wry observations that made me chuckle.   Where this book entertains is the ways all these characters make due in this cruel universe, and the general idiocy every character has.

I would advise you not to expect any character to get rewarded at the end of The Blade Itself which basically leaves everyone starting where they begun.  Glokta had finished a series of assignments and is given a larger new one with bigger threats and bigger risks.  Logan, who left the North to escape fighting ends up with more fighting, Ferro is farther away from the Gurkish Empire than ever, Luthar wins his fencing match but doesn’t move up on the political ladder because of it, West beats his sister in a rage and then goes off to war.

The rewards are much smaller than that–a surprisingly touching scene is Glokta and West making up towards the end having cut ties due to a series of misunderstandings.  It’s the tiny things that matter, just like life.

My only quibbles are that there’s a little character crowding so some of them don’t get the time needed to make them interesting.  Ferro, in particular, comes off as a raging psycho and little else, also the Dogman and his crew show up rather late in the book, and I couldn’t really tell the characters apart. However those are the short side-plots in this book, and they’re passable, just not quite as dazzling as the action in Adua.

I’ve already started the next book, and will review it in due course, but for now if you want something a little different, a little clever, I’d strongly recommend picking up The Blade Itself.  You’ll either love it or hate it, but you’ll be left with an unforgettable experience either way.  I think it’s the best fantasy book I’ve read in a good ten years at least, perhaps the best book period.

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Poetry Review: Louise Gluck, Mock Orange

24 Jun

Today we are going to read “Mock Orange” and to start with, the mock orange is a shrub that blooms wildly and bears an inedible fruit that looks like an orange but is inedible–it has a vaguely chemical flavor from what I’ve heard.

“It is not the moon, I tell you./It is these flowers/lighting the yard.”  Louise Gluck starts this poem claiming the flowers and not the moon light up the yard.  The flowers seem a little unnatural even here, the idea that they would light up like some sort of phosphorescent oddity.

“I hate them./I hate them as I hate sex,/the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth , the man’s/paralyzing body–”  So we move from a plant that has inedible fruit to her descriptions of sex, which seam predatory like an insect that stings its mate in the act.  Also it’s interesting that she hates flowers (which are big symbols of reproduction) as she hates the idea of sex as well.

“and the cry that always escapes,/the low, humiliating/premise of union–”  To the speaker sex is an excuse to create shame while pretending to bond.  One reason she hates sex is a cry escapes–as if she does not want it to be heard.  It makes her lose a sense of control.

“In my mind tonight/I hear the question and pursuing answer/fused in one sound/that mounts and mounts, and then/is split into the old selves/the tired antagonisms.”  So they do become one, but when they grow apart they do not get along, the speaker and her partner–going back into antagonism.  That sex is just an illusion.  (Again the symbol of the inedible fruit and hateful flowers really underline this.)

“Do you see?/We were made fools of.”  Meaning the sex doesn’t solve anything, it creates an illusion of bonding as they go back to their fighting corners after the act.

“And the scent of mock orange/drifts through the window.”  She sees the world as taunting her, she has just realized that there is no such thing as true bonding, there’s just distraction.

“How can I rest?/How can I be content/when there is still/that odor in the world?”   The odor, a promise of fruit when there is none, is like her physical attraction.  nothing will come from this in the end.  It’s as if she’s become disillusioned and can’t relax until the promise of union goes away, always tantalizingly out of reach.

Presidential Review: Andrew Johnson

23 Jun

johnson

 

Andrew Johnson was precisely the wrong man to be president after Lincoln.   While Lincoln had incredible political acumen, Johnson had none.  As a symbolic vice-presidential candidate, he was mostly put on the ticket as a show of unity, however Johnson managed to be distrusted by both northerners and southerners at the same time.  On top of that he took on the republican congress at a time where they were completely unified, and thus nearly got himself impeached.

The whole issue was over suffrage for the ex-slaves.  Congress, as part of reconstruction, wanted full suffrage–Johnson, who saw a great deal of power at stake, did not.  His first act as president was setting up a hasty reconstruction for the south before congress had a chance to convene, awarding amnesty, and allowing states to join the union if 10% of the citizens swore a loyalty oath.  Congress would have none of it.    At Congress’s opening, they refused to admit the southern representatives, some of whom were ex-confederate office holders.  Also, the south had made a number of laws, called black codes, which basically kept slavery intact, albeit under another name.

The tipping point was over the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This was a national organization that was intended to help ex-slaves adapt to a life of freedom.  The Bureau was not perfectly run, however it provided education, job training, tracked down family members, as well as helped feed and clothe the ex-slaves who suddenly were out of a job.  They also were in charge of making sure that ex-slaves weren’t taken advantage of, and that they got fair contracts for their jobs.  Johnson felt like the Bureau had too much power, and vetoed the bill.  Congress overrode his veto.

Shortly afterward Johnson during a speech on Washington’s birthday, wandered off topic and mentioned that members of congress were trying to assassinate him.  This particularly bizarre gaffe really worked against him, because not only were they not, but it was considered in exceptional bad taste so shortly after a presidential assassination.

After this, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights act, which was a set of laws that indicated that members of the United States would have equal treatment in law and employment regardless of race.  Johnson felt the states should decide civil rights for themselves.  The problem with this is that it was completely out of tune with the times, where Congress and most Americans wanted to get away from the very concept of state rights, feeling that that idea started the war in the first place.  Congress overrode his veto and stopped attempting to work with him to pass laws.

Congress placed the Civil Rights act directly in the Constitution, partially because ratifying a constitutional amendment bypassed the president entirely.  Johnson did a tour during the mid-term elections to try to turn congress in his favor–it failed disastrously, filled with hecklers and on multiple occasions Johnson compared himself with Jesus Christ.

Congress passed a law forbidding Johnson to fire someone on his cabinet without Congress’s approval after hearing his intentions to do so.  Johnson, who did not get along with some members of the Lincoln cabinet fired secretary of war Edward Stanton anyway.  Congress began impeachment proceedings.

Johnson did some back room wrangling, but made no public response to the impeachment process.  The senate acquitted him by only one vote.

Johnson was racist, ill-tempered, unable to compromise, mulish, and thought a lot of himself.  His stance on state rights was firmly not in accord with the times or congress either, and by trying to block congress’s reconstruction policies he inadvertently opened the door to a much harsher reconstruction than probably would have happened had Johnson simply made deals with congress in the first place.    Also there’s a huge sense of a wasted chance–Johnson was the only southern voice in government in post-reconstruction America, he certainly could have used that to not only his own advantage but also to the advantage of all Americans, instead he got into a political war and basically cut himself out from the dealmaking process entirely.

Despite all this, I have a small measure of empathy for him–after all, rebuilding a country after a war is no easy task.  Don’t get me wrong, I completely disagree with his aims, in fact, Johnson is a big reason that racism continued in the south after reconstruction, providing pardons for all ex-confederates, which allowed them to pretty much move back into the same realms of power that they held before the war.    Johnson was held as a laughingstock and an embarrassment to the post, with rumors of drunkenness and poor speaking abilities.  The thing is, he wasn’t an idiot, though people saw him as such.

That being said, Johnson wasn’t pro-slavery–in fact he was for ending it while the war was still on, and even recruited black men to fight in the war when he was Union governor of Tennessee.  Johnson also loathed the southern upper class who he blamed the whole war on in the first place.

As it is, Johnson is one of the worst presidents we’ve had, the only good thing he did as president was buy Alaska, but he was even made fun of for that.  Oh well, next up is Grant, who managed to do only slightly better.

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

20 Jun

cloud-atlas10

 

It’s a pity about Cloud Atlas, the movie is incredibly good, but it gets rather divisive reviews and audiences don’t seem to have embraced it so far as I can tell.  I’m not really going to go on about plot points too much, just know that there are a half dozen interconnected stories that interweave with each other and the movie shows how actions echo over large distances of time, sometimes completely changing as time passes.

I’ve read a lot of griping about the “revelation” in the end, that “everything is connected.”  And that if that’s the point, the movie is an empty exercise in snobbery.  However that isn’t the point–honestly the viewer knows that everything is connected within 5 minutes of the film, the realization is a revelation to the characters, but that doesn’t mean that revelation is the one that’s meant for the viewers, who get a god-like perspective of the movements of 500 years.    To say “everything is connected” is the point of Cloud Atlas would be like saying that darkness is the point of The Shining or the force is the point of Star Wars.  In all those movies those elements are there, but are those things the “point” of those films?  I’d hope you’d agree with me that the answer would be no.

This film is the most lyrical I have seen in quite some time, which means if you want an AB plot where a character has a goal and has to overcome obstacles on their way to a goal, this is not the story for you.  Cloud Atlas is not about the growth of characters (in fact most of the characters remain rather static) but the passage of lives through time–we see how people’s legacies get built, and how those legacies have power beyond what they are capable of comprehending.  We see lives get turned into myths and back again–the scope of this film is so wide that the mind can hardly comprehend it all.

We see the concept of eternal return.  I don’t particularly think that by using the same actors in different settings the filmmakers are trying to say anything about reincarnation.  It’s more that they’re showing how the same types show up again and again–you’ll see repeating all through this movie different items and people (a green gem, a birthmark, an actor, some clothes), and I see it as more of the concept of eternal return, that we as a people act out the same stories over and over again with endless variation.   That the past may not be as far as it seems, that it may be as close as the next room, that nothing ever ends.

And THAT is a philosophical point that has some meat on it.    Honestly, I think everybody should watch this film twice.  It’s that good.

 

John Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

17 Jun

John Donne is the love poet to end all love poets.  Yes, there are others (like Shakespeare or the sonnet writers) who explore similar terrain, but if you are a romantic, particularly one of the “fated to be, two souls joined into one” variety Donne is the man for you.

In this poem he is talking to his lover about him leaving for a time.  “As virtuous men pass mildly away,/and whisper to their souls to go,/Whilst some of their sad friends do say/the breath goes now, and some say, No,”   Now this sentence isn’t finished yet, but what Donne has started a metaphor, the first part of which is like a good man dying, allowing his soul to leave his body so peacefully, the people watching him do not know when he is gone–so is how this leaving should go.

“So let us melt, and make no noise,/no tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,/’twere profanation of our joys/to tell the laity of our love.”   So with this parting, he thinks there should be any outer grieving, because it would taint the love that they have by doubting it through separation.  Donne uses strong words here to indicate a spiritual (verses just a fleshly) coupling–to have public display would be profane, and the rest of the world is described as laity, mere onlookers in Donne’s holy church of love.

“Moving of th’earth brings harms and fears,/Men reckon what it did and meant;/But trepidation of the spheres/Though greater far is innocent.”   Here Donne makes a distinction with earth (which indicates time, body, mortality) and the cosmos (the spheres), the movements on earth people try to figure out, which brings harm and fear–it’s not the movement of the earth itself that brings harm however, it’s people’s reactions to it.  Also remember that he used sphere here, the circle is a big symbol in this  poem, partially because it means wholeness, and also because it’s an indication of marriage (the ring.)

“Dull sublunary lovers’ love/(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit/Absence, because it doth remove/Those things that elemented it.”  I love the sublunary lovers’ soul being sense–here he means sensation, the sublunary (below the moon) ones only understand things they can feel and see, so they cannot tolerate absence.  Also, they are ruled by the moon that changes from day to day in cycles–it is not constant.  Once the physical person is gone, it’s over.

“But we by a love so much refined,/That our selves know not what it is,/Inter-assured of the mind/Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”  Donne indicates a marriage of minds–that they are connected by much more than physical matters, a very popular idea at his time.  Not that Donne was against physical intimacy (his other poems have strong erotic overtones at times), but that is a base sort of love, the real love goes beyond, into thoughts and souls, the body is just a vessel.

“Our two souls therefore, which are one,/Though I must go, endure not yet/a breach, but an expansion,/Like gold to airy thinness beat.”  One thing about gold was that it was the most pliable metal to work with and can be beaten down to a very thin sheet.  He is saying because they are still linked, his leaving will give them more, not less, that their connection will grow larger with the separation.

“If they be two,they are two so/As stiff twin compasses are two;/Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show/To move, but doth, if th’other do.”   Their relationship is like a compass that draws circles, they are linked and one cannot separate from the other and continue to be a compass anymore.  This also indicates that the lover is the steady one, staying fixed, as the other one revolves around her–like planets.

“And though it in the center sit,/Yet when the other far doth roam,/It leans and hearkens after it,/and grows erect, as that comes home.”  Ok, so there’s some mild naughtiness here, but it’s a reassurance that he won’t stray–and at the same time there’s a spiritual connection if you can get past the ribaldry, the compass always returns to itself in the end.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must/like th’other foot obliquely run; They firmness makes my circle just,/And makes me end where I’ve begun.”  Donne ends here comparing her with the other foot (of the compass) who stands firm and in this firmness creates a circle.  In the end he wants her to not mourn, but be firm–that firmness allows him to create his mark upon the world, and has him come back home at the end creating a full circle.

Had Donne’s tone not been so serious, it would be possible to point out that this poem is asking for the woman to stay at home (without complaining) while the man goes out to roam–however his tone is so that I can make a little allowance.  Donne is saying that this is how this relationship functions, he’s not saying that every one must be the same.    However, I wonder what the woman’s response would be to this poem.  An interesting prospect.

 

Presidential Review: Abraham Lincoln

16 Jun

lincoln

 

Reviewing Lincoln is a little like reviewing Moses or Shakespeare–he’s so much above all the others it’s really hard to find things to say.  You all know his story, never have we had a president who had so much to lose and managed to gain so much in the absolute worst of times our country has ever seen.  He is our president of the civil war–a war of terrible proportions, and he is our president of emancipation–slavery being the divisive issue that was the fly in the ointment for the first century of the United States.  He defined what the United States means more than any president, and I include Washington on this list.  He is a master of speeches, politically savvy, and is something of a modern martyr.  Without Lincoln, the United States would be an entirely different country, if it even existed as an independent country at all–that’s how important he is.

Unlike Washington, Lincoln was not surrounded by brilliant minds during his tenure.  His cabinet was contentious, congress didn’t really fully support him, his generals were largely incompetent (until Grant).   He had to constantly work to keep people moving forward rather than back.  He suffered the death of his younger son, the insanity of his wife, as well as nearly everybody thinking they could do a better job than him.  Let’s make this clear, before he died, Lincoln was not an exceptionally popular president at the time.   He really was at risk to lose his second election, and had a couple of successful battles not happened just before election day, his story would have been much different.

The most impressive part of Lincoln is how his philosophy and the policies that developed continuously evolved.  He started running on a ticket that was against the spread of slavery, but not in favor of abolishing it.  As the states seceded one by one, he remained cautious on the subject–he was worried about pushing border states over the edge.   Then he privately announced his idea about an emancipation proclamation, but he had to wait until there was a battlefield success, otherwise the statement would seem hollow.  Even with the proclamation–he only freed slaves in rebel states, so any state that remained in the union were allowed to keep them.  Realistically, Lincoln  probably knew that slavery would be abolished if the war was won, but he didn’t perform that act.  He eventually allowed black regiments in the army, and joined the Civil war to a cause for freedom, and what that meant for all the future.  Whenever we talk about freedom today, we’re talking about Lincoln’s version of freedom which is much broader than the ideas that the founding fathers had.

Besides preserving the union and ending slavery, he also kept the idea of Democracy alive–because had the United States fallen, most certainly the idea of Democracy would have died with it.  Around Lincoln’s time there was much skepticism about Democracy, after all it was only a half century after the French Revolution which started as an idealistic movement and ended as a mob ruled bloodbath.  Other Democracies in the world also fared poorly, falling into their own infighting and civil wars in short order.  In the eyes of Europeans, you can’t simply have people vote on things, there must be someone or a class of someones who manage things to ensure social harmony.  While the Civil War certainly was brutal, Lincoln showed that a democratic society could survive through the worst kind of conflict.

You know his speeches, you know the war, but the thing that makes him loved to this day is his compassion and humanity.  Just looking at his images, whether for a presidential portrait, or walking through the army camps, he possessed an image of incomparable personality–ultimately, all his talk about freedom would not be worth a stick if he wasn’t relatable.    The man wasn’t perfect, but he managed to be great in spite of his imperfections, not because of a lack of them.

In the end, Lincoln proves that one person (he really did come from humble beginnings) can really have an enormous amount of power to change the world for good.   In this day of corporate mush and the general feel that the voice of the individual is getting drowned out by the forces that drive the masses, he’s the perfect life to study.

Poetry Review, George Herbert, Love (III)

10 Jun

Ah, Love.  One of the first major themes expressed in poetry and song, and one of the easiest to do badly.  I remember when I was in high school where the teacher forbid love poetry because as she said, there’s nothing original about talking about someone you love romantically, because they are always portrayed as perfect, therefore boring.   The other thing is that Love is such a universally acclaimed virtue that it can become easily meaningless–it’s an easy virtue to praise because it has no shape, no specificity and that is the problem a poet has in talking about it at all.

George Herbert makes his love a prodigal story:

“Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/Guilty of dust and sin./But quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack/From my first entrance in,/ Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,/if I lacked anything.”

One of the biggest follies about love is the idea that it somehow must be earned, that we must become people capable of deserving love before we can have it.  However if you think about those that can use love the most, like babies, it’s not about being deserving or undeserving, real love doesn’t care about such things–it’s not something you can earn.  The other thing that I like about this stanza is how he’s guilty of dust and sin–not just the things he’s done but his general dirtiness keeps him out of the door.

” ‘A guest’ I answered, ‘Worthy to be here’:/Love said ‘You shall be he.’/’I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,/I cannot look on thee.’/Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,/’who made the eyes but I?”

Looking and seeing have a great meaning in this poem.  Love is like sight, and since when do we speak of people being deserving of that?  Also he is painfully aware of his shabbiness, but Love does not care a bit.

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame/Go where it doth deserve’/’And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’/’My dear, then I will serve’/’You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’/So I did sit and eat.”

The poem amusingly moves from this great symbolic personification of love to a sign of home and hearth.  There’s a little bit of Christ talk, but the poem is pretty clear that Love is not supposed to be the same as Christ here–she’s feminine, she has a home, she has invited a stranger in who does not feel worth it.  And Herbert seems to think it’s in the ordinary everyday things that Love shines, that Love makes ordinary everyday things exist at all, without which life would be meaningless.  It gives shape and order and sustenance.  Love must not move mountains, it must only serve a hot meal and be kind.  A very different matter entirely.